Farm bill to affect county farmers

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The latest farm bill, officially the Agriculture Act of 2014, has been sent to President Obama for his signature or veto, and he has indicated he plans to sign it into law.

While Pearl River County isn’t in the Delta, crops grown here are affected by the terms of the bill as is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly call food stamps.

Pearl River County Agriculture Agent Eddie Smith said the bill is important to county farmers for a variety of reasons, including subsidies for which some of them could be eligible.

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“I have not had a chance to look at it yet,” Smith said on Tuesday, explaining that until the bill is finally passed, it is impossible to plan for what it contains. “We have to wait for the final bill to see how it’s going to affect us.”

However, Smith appeared to be especially concerned about the job of a nutritionist that works out of his office giving programs in schools, to the elderly and to other groups on nutrition to ensure people know what foods provide the best nutrition at different ages.

In a past farm bill, SNAP was cut so deeply that many of the nutrition education programs disappeared as the U.S. Department of Agriculture laid off the employees providing the information.

Smith said conservation programs to which he refers farmers and other landowners also are authorized and funded by the farm bill, programs he said improves the environment for everyone.

“There are lots of things in the farm bill people don’t realize,” he said.

Smith said the National Resource Conservation Service provides cost sharing for planting longleaf pines, a pine species that figured into the settling of this county as lumber and timber companies moved in to take advantage of the then-virgin longleaf pines. Cost-sharing for natural resources conservation practices such as terracing used in crop production. Many other agricultural practices such pasture cross-fencing has been cost-shared.

While the county isn’t located in the Delta, both cotton and soybeans are grown here, he said, though they are row crops commonly more closely associated with the Delta.

The county also has some peanut acreage, Smith said, a row crop more commonly associated with Alabama and Georgia.

Also, there is some corn acreage in the county, a crop that used to be grown on nearly all farms to feed the horses, mules and oxen used in crop production prior to the development of tractors and other gas and diesel fueled farm equipment. Corn today is again an energy crop, one grown to produce methanol used in fuel as a replacement for the lead that was once part of the blend. It is also a feed crop used to fatten livestock for slaughter.

Those crops and others more closely associated with Pearl River County, cattle and timber, are all affected by the farm bill, which goes before Congress about every five years.

Most row crops and dairy farms have been subsidized since the Great Depression to keep farms operating when prices are low or disaster strike and to keep down the price of food during bad production years.

The “commodities” program that once distributed food to the poor at various locations in every county in the nation has morphed into today’s SNAP.

The bill that finally passed out of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday has turned most crop subsidies into an insurance program funded by both the federal government and by farmers who pay a premium. One percent, or $800 million, was cut from SNAP, money the USDA expects to recover by tougher enforcement of regulations and by raising the level of a feature some states used to qualify some families for food stamps. Previously, even $1 of federal heating assistance provided by a state allowed a family to qualify for SNAP. The new farm bill raised that level to $25 of heating assistance.

The bill also does away with direct payments to farmers affected by bad weather or other disasters and now requires them to rely on the crop insurance program. Farmers reportedly can pick between assistance following disasters or assistance when farm income dips.

The bill also now will allow farmers to produce hemp, a fiber used for clothing, rope and other fibrous products. Hemp is also a close relative of marijuana but which doesn’t produce a “high” as marijuana does. Is relationship to marijuana caused this nation to ban it.

Animal rights advocates also got a boost by what the bill did not do. States such as California that have laws requiring larger cages for those producing eggs and chickens for sale in those states will be allowed to keep their laws.

The bill also made it a federal crime to attend a dog-fighting event or to bring a child to one.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.